Anime About Guy Taking A Sword Out Of A Girl The Shinsengumi in Japanese Animation – Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down?

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The Shinsengumi in Japanese Animation – Thumbs Up Or Thumbs Down?

A brief introduction: what in the world is anime?

Japanese animation – mainly referred to as ‘anime’ nowadays – has spread from East Asia’s archipelago nation to North America, and has grown to become fairly popular. (It is also pronounced ‘ah-nee-may’ derived from its original Japanese pronunciation.) This cartooning form, for those who are unfamiliar with it, gave birth to some of the more commonly known anime series in North American culture. To name a few, series such as Pokemon, Digimon, and Sailor Moon took North America by storm. Children wanted to buy the trading card games associated to the previously mentioned, as well as gadgets and toys from the shows. (I can vouch for that – I was once the proud owner of a Pokedex.)

In anime, some of the more recurring themes are magical school girls, aesthetically pretty boys, and ridiculously large-in-scale fighting robots. However, considering anime is of Japanese origin, they often like to tie in some of their own native culture into it. One more predominant, natively-Japanese theme is the samurai – the famous warrior class from medieval Japan. It would honestly take years to go through the mass amount of samurai anime series out there and thoroughly analyse their image of the samurai, which is why I have decided to focus specifically on one famous group of warriors: the Shinsengumi.

A historical background of the Shinsengumi: what did they do?

In order to better analyse the Shinsengumi in anime, I believe it is necessary to give a short historical background on this samurai group.

At the time, the Tokugawa Bakufu – the military government that reigned from 1600 to 1868 – was more powerful than the emperor himself. With the arrival of the foreigners and the signing of an unequal treaty with them, Japanese citizens started to question the authority of the bakufu. And, during all of this, the samurai were becoming more and more dissatisfied with the Tokugawa, mainly because they were made to be of the lowest social class. In result of this dissatisfaction, the bakufu thought it to be necessary to fight fire with fire, hiring masterless samurai (more specifically rÅnin) to protect the current shogun leader: they were called the RÅshigumi.

Initially, as per mentioned before, the goal of the formation of the RÅshigumi was to protect the Tokugawa Bakufu’s current shogun leader. Later on, however, this was changed to follow the slogan of sonno jÅi – “revere the Emperor, expel the foreigners.” Members of the samurai group were against the change and were adamant in protecting the bakufu, wanting that to stay their main purpose. The RÅshigumi then, strengthened by a few new-comers, changed their group name to Mibu RÅshigumi, as their headquarters were located in the small village of Mibu near Kyoto. Along with the name change, another goal change was made: instead of protecting the shogun, the members of the Mibu RÅshigumi would patrol the streets of Kyoto and act as a police force, reinforcing the law in the name of the bakufu. On August 18, 1863, because of this final change, this samurai police force was then renamed to how we know them today: the Shinsengumi, which translates to “Newly Selected Corps.”

Commodore Matthew Perry, of the American Navy, brought with him a Peace Treaty for Japan to sign – even though it was an unequal treaty – giving the United-States more advantages than Japan. This treaty forced the East Asian archipelago to open up more ports to the foreigners. Other Western countries saw the success of this treaty and immediately followed suite, having Japan sign similar treaties with England, France, Holland, and Russia. This caused an uproar within the samurai class, as they were completely against the idea of having any Westerners ‘polluting’ their country. The signing of the treaty was seen as lazy, and citizens were assuming that the government had been forced to open up Japan’s doors to these foreigners.

Japan was then split into two political parties: the Imperial Loyalists in Kyoto, a rebellion group that were against the military ideology of the Tokugawa, and the Tokugawa Bakufu in Edo (present day Tokyo). Despite the clash of these two governments, a rebel samurai group manage to assassinate General Ii of the Tokugawa shogunate – this event marked the end of the Tokugawa reign.

One of the most famous events in Shinsengumi history is the Ikedaya Incident in 1864. In a nutshell, a radical samurai planned to kidnap the emperor, burn Kyoto to the ground, and assassinate Matsudaira Katsumori (an important member of the government). The Shinsengumi found out of these plans and raided the Ikedaya Inn during the festival in Kyoto on July 8th, 1864. Two hours later, the battle ended with a few casualties and severely injured samurai on both sides.

The main members of the Shinsengumi: who are they?

Out of the hundreds of members that were part of the Shinsengumi, some stand out more than others – also, these more well-known members tend to show up in Shinsengumi-oriented anime more often than others. The following is a brief overview of the important contributors of this famous samurai police force.

Kondo Isami: the commander – and founder – of the Shinsengumi. He was born in a farming family, and studied swordsmanship. Kondo was initially part of the RÅshigumi, and was also one of the members who opposed the goal change and stayed in Kyoto, which eventually led to the creation of the samurai police force as it is known today.

Hijikata ToshizÅ: the vice-commander of the Shinsengumi. Born in a well-off farming family, Hijikata also studied swordsmanship. He eventually met with Kondo, earning him a place as a pupil of the mainstream Shinsengumi sword-fighting style. It is also said that Hijikata was the creator of the Shinsengumi Regulations, a set of strict rules that were to be obeyed by every member of the samurai police force. Anyone who went against the rules would be forced to commit ritual suicide, namely seppuku – many members of the Shinsengumi group lost their lives because of this. Hijikata is often characterised as a demon, mainly because he is the founder of these authoritarian regulations.

Okita SÅji: one of the many captains of the Shinsengumi and an excellent warrior. Okita was born as a low-class samurai. He is seen as a remarkable asset to the Shinsengumi. To emphasise this, during the Ikedaya Incident, it is said that Okita fought for the two hours mostly on his own, claiming the second floor of the inn as his private battlefield. In contrast, as much as he was a good warrior, other Shinsengumi members claimed he was not always a killing-machine, and was a warm-hearted person. He unfortunately died of tuberculosis by the end of the Tokugawa period.

Saito Hajime: another of the Shinsengumi’s captains. Initially, he was a spy for the samurai corp, after he found out about an assassination plan on their leader Kondo Isami, but later became a captain of one of the many squads.

Yamazaki Susumu: one of the many Shinsengumi’s spies. Indeed, he was not a samurai, but a ninja. It is said that he was a valuable asset during the Ikedaya Incident.

Three specific anime series: do they accurately portray the Shinsengumi?

As I have mentioned earlier, there are too many samurai-oriented anime series to go through and thoroughly analyse. However, because I always have had an interest in the Shinsengumi, I have chosen three specific series that include them: Rurouni Kenshin (also known as Samurai X), Peacemaker Kurogane, and Gintama. With these three, I will try to establish whether or not the Shinsengumi is accurately portrayed in each.

Watsuki Nobuhiro’s Rurouni Kenshin and the Shinsengumi

If you think “popular ‘old school’ samurai anime,” you think Rurouni Kenshin. The anime adaptation was made in 1996, and was directed by Furuhashi Kazuhiro. Originally a manga (Japanese comic) series, Rurouni Kenshin follows the story of Himura Kenshin, a wandering samurai during the Meiji era who used to be a skilled assassin working for the Bakumatsu government.

Considering the author of the original manga series, Watsuki Nobuhiro, is a fan of the Shinsengumi and of the like, this series manages to integrate some historical Japanese figures. Although not all the Shinsengumi are present, Watsuki includes Saito Hajime in the story, making him one of Kenshin’s old rivals from the early Tokugawa days. Watsuki’s “Hajime,” unfortunately, was frowned upon by Shinsengumi fans, as they said that he did not portray the real Saito Hajime. In this series, seeing as it is set after the Tokugawa period, the Shinsengumi captain is portrayed as a sadistic person. Watsuki built his own “Hajime,” making him completely different from how the actual Saito Hajime was. With this being said, I believe it is safe to say that, although Rurouni Kenshin is a fantastic and wonderful series, it does not succeed in dutifully portraying the Shinsengumi’s captain Saito Hajime.

Chrono Nanae’s Peacemaker Kurogane and the Shinsengumi

The next series is a little more recent, dating from 2003. Peacemaker Kurogane is a Shinsengumi-oriented anime series, directed by Hirata Tomohiro. Set during the Tokugawa period, it is a fictional story following Ichimura Tetsunosuke, a fifteen-year-old boy who is desperate to join the Shinsengumi in order to avenge his parents’ deaths. Fortunately, because of this, many of the aforementioned Shinsengumi members make an appearance in this series.

The first who makes his appearance is captain Okita SÅji… and, right off the bat in episode one, he looks like a woman (and is also voiced by a woman in the Japanese dub!). I believe that, as discussed beforehand, because of SÅji’s ‘double personality’ – a demon fighter in battle and a kind-hearted person outside of battle – and also because of his young age, he is often portrayed as effeminate. But I have a hunch that he actually was not as effeminate as they portray him in Peacemaker Kurogane. In the series, it seems he has a close enough relationship with Kondo Isami, as SÅji goes from his Extremely Good Shinsengumi Warrior personality to his Happy-Go-Lucky personality. I believe Chrono’s interpretation of SÅji is going a little over the top, but it also might be a critique on the actual Shinsengumi captain.

Next up is Kondo Isami, the leader of the famous samurai police force. He is depicted as an older man, and as a somewhat nonchalant person. When Tetsunosuke shows up at the Shinsengumi’s headquarters and begs to become a member, Kondo gives him permission to take the test without two seconds of thought. Could this be a critique on how Kondo was possibly too lenient with the Shinsengumi?

And then that brings us to the next introduced Shinsengumi character, Hijikata ToshizÅ. This character is far from looking effeminate, or even looking like a nice person. He is first briefly introduced in episode one, but leaves an impression nonetheless – tall, mean-looking, and strict, he oozes ‘demon fighter.’ But is that really how Hijikata was? With the fact that he is the possible creator of the Shinsengumi Regulations, it might not be far from the truth. The only person he seems comfortable with, however, is Kondo Isami, illustrating a strong bond between the two characters.

Compared to Watsuki’s rendition of Saito Hajime in his series Rurouni Kenshin, the Hajime portrayed in Peacemaker Kurogane is far from being the same image. In this series, he is not sadistic at all; he is rather portrayed as a laid-back person, being a Buddhist monk and dealing with the supernatural. Maybe this radical change from Watsuki’s version is critiquing Hajime’s actual personality – Peacemaker Kurogane‘s portrayal of him might be helping with the correction of Watsuki’s earlier version of the Shinsengumi captain.

And, although many other Shinsengumi members made their appearance, I want to draw some attention to Yamazaki Susumu’s character. Historically, as I have mentioned earlier, he was a spy for the Shinsengumi, and is not often portrayed in anime or manga. In this particular series, he is often seen on spy missions – and, while on those missions, he is also often seen cross-dressing. Disguising, as well as other less ‘honourable’ tactics, is one of the oldest tricks in the book – for both samurai and ninja alike. It was a commonly-known fact that warriors would go to the extra mile, even if it meant dressing as a woman, to infiltrate the enemy’s bases. With that being said, Yamazaki’s cross-dressing is quite historically accurate.

Sorachi Hideaki’s Gintama and the Shinsengumi

And now for something completely different: Gintama is not your regular, old-fashioned Shinsengumi-oriented anime. Yes, it is set in the Edo period of Japan… but the twist? Aliens have taken over the small archipelago, forbidding samurai from carrying around their swords in public. (Is it just me or is there an obvious parallel between the invading aliens in this series and the foreigners who came to Japan during the Tokugawa period?)

The author of the original Gintama manga series originally planned to make this work revolve around the Shinsengumi. In the end product, however, the main focus was not the Shinsengumi, but they still play a role in this series.

Now, unlike the two previous series mentioned, Gintama‘s main focus is definitely not historical accuracy. Despite that fact, I think the radical (and humorous) representation of the Shinsengumi in this series is worth noting.

Because of the sci-fi twist, the Shinsengumi do not even wear their iconic and famous light-blue haori uniforms – rather, they wear modern, Western-looking military uniforms, which might be a sign of ‘foreign assimilation.’ Right in episode one, the viewer is introduced to several ‘knock-off’ versions of the actual Shinsengumi members.

Amongst the first to appear are Hijikata Toshiro (based on Hijikata ToshizÅ) and Okita SÅgo (based on Okita SÅji). They both still retain their normal portrayals: Hijikata being the vice-captain and the “brains” of the samurai police force, and Okita being a captain and the “greatest swordsman in the nation.” And, although not as feminine-looking as Okita’s rendition in Peacemaker Kurogane, Gintama‘s Okita is still not the manliest-looking character of the group. With Hijikata, the author plays around with his knowledge of the historical figure, making him the “demonic vice-commander” and making him talk about seppuku quite often. That last fact might be emphasising his writing of the Shinsengumi Regulations.

The other main Shinsengumi character knock-off is Kondo Isao, obviously based on the actual commander Kondo Isami. He gave back the Shinsengumi their swords, despite the sword ban the aliens put into place – this is the reason why the members of the samurai police force are loyal to him. It also seems that his nice attitude is his weak point when it comes to judging people.

A final wrap-up: what can be said about the Shinsengumi in anime?

With any anime show, its first goal is to entertain. Although, as we have seen with the previously mentioned series, it can incorporate historical elements into a fictional story without straying too far from fact and still serve its entertaining purpose.

In all three of the series I chose, it is evident that the authors tried to include historical facts in order to portray the original Shinsengumi members. However, seeing as all three stories are fictional, not every little detail is taken into consideration, and some elements are transformed into something more fitting for the story.

All in all, however, I believe that with anime series like these (despite their historical inaccuracies), an awareness of the Shinsengumi is growing – the first time I ever heard of them was back in my Rurouni Kenshin days. Hopefully, these series will want to make fans look into the history of this samurai police force, just as I did.

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